Richard Whiting

Richard Whiting was the last monk to hold the post of Abbot of the Abbey of Glastonbury before the dissolution of the Abbey.

Not much is known about his family or his date of birth but he was of advanced years when he died in 1539 - some say that he we as over 80.  He was intelligent.  He joined the Abbey as a young monk and attended the Abbey school.  His learning made encouraging progress and the young monk was sent by the abbey to Cambridge. In due course he graduated as a Master of Arts.  Later in his life returned to Cambridge to be awarded the degree of Doctor of Divinity.

He was a Benedictine monk and his home was Glastonbury Abbey. On returning from his first stay in Cambridge, he settled down once more into the life of the Abbey.  He was ordained as a priest and for some years was Chamberlain of the Abbey.  The post of Chamberlain carried with it the responsibility for managing all the material and economic affairs of the Abbey. This meant not only looking after the Abbey buildings but managing the Abbey’s vast estates. The Abbey’ estates included most of the buildings in the town of Glastonbury and extensive manors controlling farming estates covering some 15,000 acres and employing some 3,000 agricultural workers. The abbot of the Abbey was the law over all this land.

In 1525, Richard Bere, the then Abbot of Glastonbury, died, and the community of monks decided to call upon the established practice of  asking the Lord Chancellor, at that time Cardinal Wolsey,  to choose their new abbot. After investigating various possible candidates, Wolsey nominated Richard Whiting to the vacant post.  Whiting was appointed abbot in the same year – he was then in his late 60s. 

The first few years of Whiting's term as Abbot were peaceful and he appears to have continued to supervise the managing of all aspects of the life of the Abbey, both secular and spiritual, in a calm and efficient manner.

But in the outside world all was turmoil as Henry VIII and his officers set about systematically dissolving the Abbeys of England and confiscating their wealth.  In 1535 Glastonbury was investigated by the king’s commissioners. Whilst all was found to be in good order, the opportunity was taken to restrict the abbot’s powers and make all his actions subject to supervision by the officers of the king.

For the next few years, Glastonbury was left in relative peace and by January 1539, Glastonbury was the only monastery left in Somerset.  But this peace was rudely disturbed when in September of that year three royal commissioners arrived in Glastonbury seeking to speak with the abbot.   Whiting was not at Glastonbury but was at the abbey’s manor of Sharpham, some two miles to the West of Glastonbury, and the commissioners rode out to interview him there.  The manor is still there today. It is a beautiful spot with a clear view of the Tor.  Standing in front of the manor one can easily visualise the three King’s men riding across the levels to arrest the aged abbot.

On arrival at the manor, the commissioners questioned the abbot. They were not satisfied with the answers that he gave and he was arrested and taken first to Glastonbury and then on to London to the Tower.  There he was examined by Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex, who was Henry VIIIs chief minister and had taken personal responsibility for the dissolution of the monasteries.  The result of the examination was that the abbot appeared to be guilty as charged and he was ordered to be taken to Wells there to be tried and sentenced.  There is no record of the precise charge but is believed to have been one of high treason against the king’s person in that had he refused to reveal to the king’s commissioners, the whereabouts of the abbeys hidden treasure.

 

Whiting was sent back to Somerset and reached Wells in mid November.  Here a trial was held in the Great Hall of the Bishop’s Palace.   Three walls of this hall remain standing today and there can still be sensed something of the drama of that trial. The outcome of the trial seems to have been pre-arranged and Whiting was found guilty of high treason and sentenced to the statutory punishment for that crime - death by hanging, drawing and quartering. 

On Saturday 15 November 1539, abbot Whiting was taken to Glastonbury with two of his fellow monks, John Thorne and Roger James. The three were tied upon hurdles and dragged by horses to the top of the Tor. November is a cold, wet and bleak month and it is not comfortable to imagine the experience that they shared of being dragged to their death, through the mud, in these conditions. On the Tor the gruesome equipment required for the execution was waiting; the gibbets, a chopping block and a cauldron of boiling tar. Before his execution, the abbot would have had a last look at his beloved Abbey which had been his home, and which he had served, all his life.  The three were hanged, drawn and quartered - the abbot and his brother monks were said to have died bravely and with dignity.

The dis-membered body of Richard Whiting was boiled in pitch.  His head was fastened over the gate of the abbeyand his four quarters were sent to four outlying towns of Somerset to be displayed at Wells, Bath, Ilchester and Bridgewater.

The death of the Abbot was the symbolic and real end of what had been the great Abbey of Glaston.  Buildings had stood on this land for a thousand years and had grown into one of the largest and richest abbeys in the land.   Now the monks were pensioned off; the great estates were sold off to add gold to the king’s coffers; the lead was removed from the roof of the abbey and the buildings were allowed to slowly decay. What had been, for hundreds of years, the beating spiritual and economic heart of Glastonbury was now still. Glastonbury, which had grown up with the sole purpose of serving the abbey, now had to find a new purpose.   

There is a theory today that at the time of its dissolution, Glastonbury abbey, and some of its monks, held a special secret that enabled them to control an energy that was more powerful than anything at the king’s disposal. The only way to destroy this energy once and for all was by a powerful act of ritual magic.  The execution of the Abbot, with a monk on each side of him on the wintry Tor, was such an act of ritual and was designed to fragment and destroy the eternal spiritual power of Glastonbury.  This theory holds that the effects of this can still be felt today and the results are to be seen in the splintering of attempts by various aspects of the town to work together. The theory holds that only way in which this damage can be healed is by a formal ceremony in which the dis-membered abbot is Re-Membered.  

Glastonbury abounds in myths and legends and maybe this is just another myth. But a myth is often a way of conveying a real truth – maybe the myth of the need to ‘Remember Richard Whiting’ is concealing such a truth.